August 7th, 2009

Wanaka tree


A couple of weeks ago, in a Nursing Home in Wells, not far from where I live, a famous man died. He wasn't an extraordinary man in most respects but he was respected and honoured and admired and cared about, not just by the community he lived in, not just in the region he came from, and probably not even just in his own country.

His name was Harry Patch and he was 111 years old when he died. Of course, that age is remarkable in itself. Reaching that age makes anyone a survivor in the truest sense of the word. And Harry was a survivor. He outlived his sons, his wives and the rest of his generation. He outlived most of the people he had ever known.

The reason that Harry had become famous was partly because of his great age but it was really tied to one fact, one small part of his life that changed his world forever. Harry was conscripted as an infantry man in the First World War. Harry fought in the trenches at Ypres and Passchendaele. He was, or rather had become, the last survivor of that terrible, inhuman, wasteful, pointless campaign. He was the last fighting Tommy.

He was wounded and invalided out of the war, and went back to his life as a plumber in Somerset. He didn't discuss his wartime experiences with his family and friends.

When he reached the age of 100, he suddenly started to talk about it, to rail against the inhumanity and stupidity of war, to tell the present and future generations to sort out their problems in a civilised manner; not to take their young people down the roads that he had been marched down. He became famous, received hundreds of letters every day, received visits from the great and good, had poems and songs and books written about him.

Harry became a star. He came over as a kind, quiet, thoughtful and wise man. He had a great sense of humour. I fear he will be remembered for being the last survivor of that tragedy, yet it represented only a few months of a long and remarkable life.

Yesterday thousands of people lined the streets of the small city of Wells as his body was taken to the cathedral for his funeral service. I don't think he would have liked all the ceremony and fuss, but he knew it would have to be that way. The service was broadcast across the world and Harry's words and message were told to the world one more time. He was just an ordinary west country man who happened to live a long time and to become unique because of it. But ordinary people can be great people too and Harry was great, most of all because he was ordinary.

Under the cut, if I've managed to get it to work right, are a few photos I took a couple of weeks ago of poppies in a corn field near my home. We don't see them very much these days but when someone ploughs a little deeper than normal, up they come. I thought this was an appropriate place and time to post them. The poppy has become the symbol of Harry's terrible war because it was the first flower to blossom on those bloodstained fields after the guns fell silent. 


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